October 1999

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Hearts in Atlantis:
Stephen King Gets Serious
About the Lost Boomer Generation

by Charlie Onion

Hearts in Atlantis
Stephen King
512 pp.

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"Low Men in Yellow Coats," the first story in Stephen King's new collection of interconnected stories, is the best of the set, hands-down. Now, I say 'story,' but that's really not entirely correct. At two hundred and fifty-four pages, it's what most minimalists would call a lengthy novel; in King's case, it might be best to call it a novella. As one might expect, it's a horror-tinged story, but King takes a leisurely pace, building the tension slowly and turning it into the expected genre rather far into the story.

The plot: It's the late spring of 1960, and a thirty-four-year-old widow (Liz Garfield) and her eleven-year-old son (Bobby) live a quietly tense life together in a small New England town. She's got a vengeful streak and isn't above buying herself a silk dress and refusing to give her son more than an adult library card for his birthday. Still, in her own way, she cares for her son and offers him a variety of sayings to prepare him for the real world: "Best keep yourself to yourself," "I'd trust him as far as I could sling a piano" and--her personal favorite--"Life's not fair." Then a gray-haired, worn-down man (Ted Brautigan) moves into their building. Bobby's mother is instantly suspicious of him (she seems to think he's a pedophile, though she doesn't say so up-front, at least initially), and his friends suggest he's on the run from someone. But Bobby likes him because the man gives him a copy of Lord of the Flies and talks about literature in a serious tone. But as Bobby slowly begins to notice, the new lodger isn't

quite right. He has episodes where he "goes off" to another place in his mind, and as Bobby learns, it's best not to touch him when he's empty like that because touching him somehow allows the man's frightening inner experiences to pass into Bobby. (In Ted's words, "When I touch, I pass a kind of window.") Then, in a move that seems to confirm his mental problems, Ted hires Bobby to patrol the block, looking for "low men in yellow coats." But strange things begin to happen--secret signs appear, just as Ted said they would--and things start to get distinctly weird.

The characters are vividly drawn here, and the story moves along effortlessly once Bobby takes center-stage. King has a particular knack for writing in young voices (an important skill, given his fiction is so often about the struggle between innocence and experience), and "Low Men in Yellow Coats" would probably have been improved if King had limited the story to Bobby's voice and left out the omniscient intrusions that make the opening pages feel a bit stiff and awkward. (The way King simply plops his backstories down into his narrative is particularly disappointing. Surely, he could find a more novel--if not experimental--way of doing this.)

That being said, I'll quickly say this: while it starts out slowly (and probably goes on twenty pages too long; its ending gives it a strung-out, artless shape), this is ultimately one of the most harrowing yet touching stories you could imagine reading. The relationship between Bobby and Ted is wonderfully developed, and its denouement is heart-crushing.


Unfortunately, most of the other four stories in this collection aren't nearly as good.

"Hearts in Atlantis," the most substantial story among the four at least in length, is a rather flaccid narrative set in 1966. In a nutshell: Peter Riley, the story's narrator, enters the University of Maine as a Goldwater Republican, finds his grades slipping when he becomes obsessed with the card game Hearts, and only belatedly makes the swing to the Left with the rest of his generation. The catalyst is Vietnam, of course (as it is in all the stories here, except for "Low Men in Yellow Coats") , but Riley's narrative is too loose and the storyline too pedestrian and unfocused to hold our interest. Worse, most of King's characters here are little more than cardboard figures, and he simply can't generate an engaging, intelligent conflict with such material. The one notable exception is Carol Gerber, Bobby's young girlfriend in "Low Men in Yellow Coats." She appears here as Peter's new girlfriend and has the distinction of being the one character whose thoughts and actions aren't easily predicted by the reader.

Stephen King
photo by Tabitha King

"Blind Willie" is decidedly more intriguing (and shorter). The year is 1983, and a yuppie wakes up in the Connecticut suburbs, rides the train to work in the city, takes the elevator up to his office...and quietly climbs through the ceiling to the office he rents directly above his official office. He then takes off his suit, puts on his dogtags and writes "I'm heartily sorry" over and over again--as he's done every day for a long time. He then changes into a new set of clothes, slicks back his hair and hits the street as a repairman--only to change into a new disguise in a hotel bathroom. This time, he hits the streets as a blind Vietnam vet panhandler named Blind Willie, "a Fifth Avenue fixture since the days of Gerald Ford." Intriguing, eh? The fact that the yuppie is indeed a Vietnam vet (although not the one he claims to be, exactly) and is one of the boys who attacked Carol Gerber with a baseball bat when she was eleven puts a chilling spin on the story's subtext.

"Why We're In Vietnam," is ostensibly similar to "Blind Willie," though it's set in 1999. This time, the Vietnam vet is John Sullivan, Carol Gerber's high school boyfriend. Sullivan is, in a word, haunted--but not in the traditional King sense. Instead, he's spent thirty years hallucinating that an old, white-haired Vietnamese mamasan is sitting in the room with him, staring at him quietly. The story's more of a character study than anything else; it certainly couldn't stand on its own. As with "Hearts in Atlantis"--and unlike "Low Men in Yellow Coats" and "Blind Willie"--one can't help feeling that the story suffers because King skims over his character's plight from a distance, rather than dramatizing it with focused intensity. All the drama is in the backstory, and it fails to justify the story's bizarre ending.

"Heavenly Shades of Night Are Falling," the last story in the collection (and by far the shortest), brings Bobby into the present (1999) for a brief, seemingly unnoticed homecoming. But Bobby's voice here seems little different from Sullivan's or Pete's, and it should best be considered a brief closing coda for the collection. Like "Why We're In Vietnam," its dramatic momentum is undercut by the main character's morbid reflections, and the actual events seem a little forced and self-conscious.


Repeatedly in Hearts in Atlantis, King's characters--and, by extension, King implies, all baby boomers--face a critical question: when you pass from childhood's innocence into that heart-shattering world of adult experience, do you stand up against the worst things experience tries to force on you? Do you defiantly bring something of the innocent's splendor with you or do you quietly give in? Do you, at least, have the courage to try to defy it? As the characters in Hearts in Atlantis learn, to acquiesce to experience's awful sweep--to give in quietly with the hope that it will go easy on you--is a sin, whether it's keeping quiet while friends beat a girl or refusing to participate in an anti-war rally for fear your parents might find out. (As the Vietnam vet says in "Blind Willie," "You do penance as much for what you were spared as for what you actually did.)

Too many boomers, King seems to suggest, simply gave up after innocence lost out (and Atlantis sank, in his metaphor) and turned in the 1980s to mean, self-centered greed (in King's phrase, "retired [hippies] who progressed from selling cocaine to selling junk bonds over the phone)--only to settle now for the diminished expectations of the twilight years. As one of the Vietnam vets says to Sullivan in "Why We're In Vietnam,"


"I like lots of people our age when they're one by one...but I loathe and despise my generation, Sully. We had an opportunity to change everything. We actually did. Instead we settled for designer jeans, two tickets to Mariah Carey at Radio City Music Hall, frequent flier miles, James Cameron's Titanic, and retirement portfolios. The only generation even close to us in pure, selfish self-indulgence is the so-called Lost Generation of the twenties, and at least most of them had the decency to stay drunk. We couldn't even do that. Man, we suck."


It's a fine, provocative subject to explore, though people on either side of the boomers' era might find it a bit self-centered. But, while at least two of the stories here are strong, King simply doesn't make Hearts in Atlantis's story arc from 1960 to 1999 compelling as fiction, from beginning to end. The stories, in short, don't talk to each other--and probably can't because they have such disparate voices and divergent genres.

Attentive readers will pick up on abiding themes and images that tie the stories together, but too often they lack that elusive quality that makes their connection seem magical. For this sort of exercise to work, the reader must feel an otherworldly quality makes them recur; but King fails to show us the eerie necessity that brings his themes up again and again.

In the end, Hearts in Atlantis offers one great novella and a strong short story with three other stories offered up for the idly curious--or for graduate students interested in building theses out of King's musings on baby boomers' flaws. Of course, two out of five seems like a bad success rate. But those two stories are good enough to recommend the collection overall.


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